The beginner’s guide to The Boat Race

Beth Price 25 March 2014

Also known as the University Boat Race, the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race or currently, the BNY Mellon Boat Race, the Boat Race is an annual rowing race between the Cambridge University Boat Club and the Oxford University Boat Club. It was first raced in 1829 when Cantab Charles Merrivale from St John’s challenged his old school friend Charles Wordsworth, who was at Christ Church, Oxford, to a boat race at Henley-on-Thames, which Merrivale lost. The Boat Race became an annual fixture in 1856, moving to its current Putney to Mortlake course through London in 1864 and with breaks during the First and Second World Wars, 2014 sees the 160th.

Currently, Oxford hold The Boat Race trophy, but Cambridge still lead the tally 81 victories to 77, also recording the largest margin of victory – 35 boat lengths in 1839. There has been one dead heat in 1877 and in 2003 Oxford won by just one foot. Possibly even more dramatically, there have been six sinkings in Boat Race history, with both boats sinking in 1912. A century later in 2012, the race was struck with controversy again, when Trenton Oldfield swam between the boats in a political protest, causing the race to be halted. After the restart, the boats clashed and an Oxford oar was broken. Cambridge won despite an Oxford appeal – the first time since 1849 a team had won without an official time being recorded.

Whereas in the 19th century the boats were wide and wooden with blades only two inches wide, today’s boats are lightweight and hi-tech. Both teams row in 62 ft yellow carbon-fibre reinforced plastic boats, the big visible difference being their kits. Cambridge row in light blue kits and Oxford are in navy. 

The course covers 4 miles and 374 yards, 6.779km, a mammoth task compared to the Olympic maximum distance of 2km, from Putney to Mortlake. The race is rowed upstream and, traditionally, if a crew can cut in front of their opponent by getting an early lead of more than a boat length they tend to keep the lead, with 95% of boats leading at Barnes Railway Bridge winning.

The boats compete for the fastest current in the river during the race, having tossed a coin to decide which side of the river (station) their crew will race on – the north (Middlesex) or the south (Surrey). Both Middlesex and Surrey have advantages on different bends; with 75 wins from the Middlesex station and 73 from Surrey. The cox’s decision is based on the weather conditions with the race going ahead even on days where international regattas would be cancelled.

With both crews looking strong and the countdown in full swing after 1,200 hours of training, the 160th Boat Race promises to be an exciting race. It remains to be seen which cox will be thrown into the Thames in celebration; fingers crossed it will be the light blues getting soaked.